Rulings cloud issue of school MySpace suspensions

Feb 04, 2010 By MARYCLAIRE DALE , Associated Press Writer

(AP) -- Federal appellate judges wrestling with whether schools can discipline students for Internet speech posted offsite reached different rulings Thursday in two Pennsylvania cases.

One 3rd U.S. Circuit Court panel upheld the suspension of a Schuylkill County eighth-grader who posted sexually explicit material along with her principal's photograph on a fake MySpace page.

However, a different three-judge panel said that school officials in Mercer County cannot reach into a family's home and police the Internet. That case also involves a MySpace parody of a principal created by a student at home.

And, in dissent, a judge in the first case said his colleagues were broadening the school's authority and improperly censoring students.

"This holding vests school officials with dangerously overbroad censorship discretion," Judge Michael Chagares wrote in refusing to uphold the March 2007 suspension of a Blue Mountain Middle School student. "Neither the nor this Court has ever allowed schools to punish students for off-campus speech that is not school sponsored and that caused no substantial disruption at school."

School boards, free-speech advocates and others had been awaiting the rulings for clarity on how far schools can go to control both online speech and offsite behavior.

"The law was unclear and now it's in a state of chaos," said lawyer Witold Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the Mercer County case.

Similar cases have surfaced across the country, with different rulings, but none have reached the Supreme Court. Judges are therefore left to rely on decades-old Supreme Court case law on the limits of school discipline for guidance.

Lawyer Anthony Sanchez, who represents the Hermitage School District in Mercer County, called the issue ripe for high-court review.

"With technology, ... we're in a very different world than we were when those other opinions came out," Sanchez said late Thursday. He did not immediately know if the district would appeal.

In the Blue Mountain case, both the district and circuit courts upheld the 14-year-old student's 10-day suspension.

Chagares' two colleagues concluded that her lewd, sexually graphic posting was likely to cause a disruption at school, and could therefore be restricted under prior case law.

The Web page, which used a fake name but an actual photo of the principal, was purported to have been posted by an Alabama principal who described himself as a pedophile and sex addict. The address included the phrase "kids rock my bed."

The principal and other students at Blue Mountain quickly became aware of it, discussing it at school the next day, according to testimony.

"Electronic communication allows students to cause a substantial disruption to a school's learning environment even without being physically present. We decline to say that simply because the disruption to the learning environment originates from a computer located off campus, the school should be left powerless to discipline the student," Judge Michael Fisher wrote in a footnote.

The ACLU did not immediately know if it would appeal, Walczak said.

Both 3rd Circuit panels upheld lower court decisions.

In the Mercer County case, U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry had ruled that Hermitage School District officials failed to show then-senior Justin Layshock's parody profile of his Hickory High School principal substantially disrupted school operations.

"The school's right to maintain an environment conducive to learning does not trump Justin's First Amendment right to freedom of expression based on the evidentiary record in this case," McVerry wrote in a 2007 opinion. "Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited."

Explore further: Study: Social media users shy away from opinions

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ariz. court rules records law covers 'metadata'

Oct 29, 2009

(AP) -- Hidden data embedded in electronic public records must be disclosed under Arizona's public records law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case that attracted interest from media and government organizations.

Court Denies Vonage Bid for Patent Case Retrial

May 04, 2007

A U.S. appeals court denies a request by Internet phone company Vonage Holdings that it order a retrial in the patent infringement case brought against it by Verizon Communications.

Recommended for you

Study: Social media users shy away from opinions

22 hours ago

People on Facebook and Twitter say they are less likely to share their opinions on hot-button issues, even when they are offline, according to a surprising new survey by the Pew Research Center.

US warns shops to watch for customer data hacking

Aug 23, 2014

The US Department of Homeland Security on Friday warned businesses to watch for hackers targeting customer data with malicious computer code like that used against retail giant Target.

Fitbit to Schumer: We don't sell personal data

Aug 22, 2014

The maker of a popular line of wearable fitness-tracking devices says it has never sold personal data to advertisers, contrary to concerns raised by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

Should you be worried about paid editors on Wikipedia?

Aug 22, 2014

Whether you trust it or ignore it, Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world and accessed by millions of people every day. So would you trust it any more (or even less) if you knew people ...

How much do we really know about privacy on Facebook?

Aug 22, 2014

The recent furore about the Facebook Messenger app has unearthed an interesting question: how far are we willing to allow our privacy to be pushed for our social connections? In the case of the Facebook ...

Philippines makes arrests in online extortion ring

Aug 22, 2014

Philippine police have arrested eight suspected members of an online syndicate accused of blackmailing more than 1,000 Hong Kong and Singapore residents after luring them into exposing themselves in front of webcam, an official ...

User comments : 0